An interview with Dzvinia Orlowsky by Solstice intern Carrie Margolis (fall 2010)
What poets have influenced your writing? How have these poets been influential?
Your first question is difficult to answer because are too many poets to begin to try to name them! Also, sometimes a favorite image or line rather than an entire poem or collection can stay with me for days. But here are a few:
Thomas Lux’s poems were a first love. When his books Memory’s Hand Grenade and The Glass Blower’s Breath came out, I read them over and over, night after night. I carried them with me everywhere I went. He changed the tone of what I thought poetry had to be (more formal, more conservative in the use of figurative language). His poems were surreal but painfully personal, off-the-charts quirky, funny. One of my favorite quotations is: “Any culture that cannot laugh at itself, cannot survive itself,” though I don’t recall who said it. This is not to say that I grew up laughing at all the things that confused me. But humor certainly played an important role in connecting with others on issues, in particular, of cultural identity. Humor brings down our defenses; we listen more closely, and experience one another more deeply.
Other early loves include a host of Eastern European writers: Osip Mandelstam, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Wislawa Szymborska, Nina Cassian. For a number of these poets, imagination was synonymous with freedom. Reading their work is an immersion in the power of image and bold imagistic leaps.
Finally, anyone who knows me well knows I’m a huge fan of Franz Wright’s poems. The first time I read his poems in Field back in the seventies—I still remember the titles: “Netherlandish Proverbs,” “Mosquitoes,” and “Thinking about Suicide.” I had the sensation of being in the presence of an emotion I’d never felt before. I felt physically changed.
The greatest influence these poets had on me was that they taught me to deeply love language.
How would you describe the contemporary American poetry scene to a student of yours?
[Contemporary American poetry is marked by] a highly energetic use of language and persistent experimentation with more traditional forms. Prose poems continue to push boundaries with regard to over-all length, line breaks, and the shape they take on the page. In short, pretty much anything goes, as long as it’s done well and has a reason behind it. I’m reminded of Terrance Hayes’s “Sofa in the Kitchen” theory that he talked about to students in a workshop we co-taught years ago. It went something like this: If you invite me to your house (meaning your poem) and there’s a sofa in the kitchen, that’s your business. But you better know why it’s there.
As a poet, how would you describe your experience translating Alexander Dovzhenkos’ novel, Enchanted Desna? How did you approach the longer form?
Dovzhenko’s prose is very lyrical—so much so that you can take sections out and work them as extended prose poems. This allowed me to divide the novella into sections and enter each passage separately. I worked directly from the Ukrainian text (with a hefty dictionary always near by) and set myself on a very disciplined schedule of tackling a certain number of pages per week. After I completed a first draft of the entire piece, I went over each page a second time with my mother, who helped me a great deal in terms of grasping the “feel” of his prose. She suggested I take some liberties in order to create the poetic atmosphere Dovzhenko strived for.
This was my greatest challenge as, despite the innate lyric quality of his prose, I had a tendency to stick too closely to the text, translating it, at times, too literally, stiffly. I had to remind myself that this was, after all, a river Dovzhenko was writing about —a river that was constantly shifting, breathing. For the third revision I worked with several Ukrainians who helped me fine tune the text, and Lev Chaban of Harvard’s Widener Library was very patient in answering my many questions. Last but not least, my other close writer friends Gary Duehr, Nancy Mitchell, and Debbie Zildjian, were immensely helpful in providing me with critical feedback.
How has having a strong cultural background from Ukraine impacted your writing? How has it affected your perspective?
In society people not only acquire their memories, but they also recall, recognize, and localize them. Just after World War II, my parents immigrated to the States, settling in Ohio because the rural land reminded then of Ukraine. Most of my parent’s friends settled in Manhattan or Chicago, but mine selected a small town Pleasant City in Southern Ohio to begin their lives as American citizens. Prohibited from speaking English and from socializing with American kids (we had annual “play groups” with other Ukrainian-American kids), my early childhood memories were “localized” to say the least. I learned English from television, and I was an outsider with regard to American culture and an outsider from Ukrainian culture, too. I spent a lot of time crossing my fingers behind my back when asked by some of my parents’ more formidable friends if I would rather meet (if exhumed) Taras Shevchenko, Ukraine’s national poet, or one of the Beatles.
I guess you could say I learned early on the difference between actual and emotional truths and identifying borders that had to be crossed under one’s very own roof. Early on, I developed the urgent need to answer the question “Who, what am I?” which led me to poetry and the hypothetical lyric “I”. It’s a subject that still occupies much of my writing—recalling and recognizing an emotional sense of “place”—a sense of place that is constantly shifting and re-defining itself.
In your book of poems Edge of House “everyday” places play a role. Can you comment on how place is figured in your writing?
In A Handful of Bees a variety of social immigrant organizations take an active part in creating as well as recalling memories for the speaker. Included in these are the church, the Ukrainian National Home, and Saturday Ukrainian School. The latter two were created to claim continuity with the historic past. The former accumulates not only the history but also beliefs and rituals—old rituals in a new world.
At the time Edge of House was written, I was raising two small children born 15 months apart and co-founding the New York-based Four Way Books with Jane Brox, Helen Fremont, and the press’s director, Martha Rhodes. To put it succinctly, I never left the house. Or so it seemed. Desire and domesticity were defined and redefined, reconciled daily. Common physical objects took on greater metaphoric meaning. Poet Melanie Drane recently reminded me of a wonderful lines by Jane Hirshfield: “Only when I am quiet for a long time/and do not speak/do the objects of my life draw near.”
My last two collections, Except for One Obscene Brushstroke and Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones were written from/of the body. The first contained many of what I like to call my “high-heeled poems”: blunt, “attitude” poems examining (at times painfully embarrassing) body censorship and release. The latter comprises my “barefoot” poems. These poems journey through a body, stripped and reconfigured, that I had to relearn to trust and love.
How did you approach writing about a challenging and emotional situation— having and surviving breast cancer—in Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones?
Rilke writes: “You are nearing the land called life; you will recognize it by its seriousness.” Not that I wasn't compassionate prior to having breast cancer, but I certainly learned to become more so.I felt connected with people and life in ways I hadn’t before.One of the first poems I wrote was “Nude Descending” for which I was honored with a Pushcart Prize. The poem is about my descent, through pain, fear, anxiety, but always shining above me, a light from a higher source.
Overall, an important process for me in writing this book was to allow myself tofully exploredifferent sides of mypersonalityas I went throughmy experience. Just as, for that year, I appeared physically different (depending upon which wig or scarf I wore) I allowed both the heroine andthe coward—the woman cowering in the corner as wellas the womanconfronting the cop who pulls her over for speeding—to step forth. The process taught me tohold aspects of my personality like a prism inmy hand, allowing eachcolor to show through depending on which angleturned toward light.
The titles of your poems in Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones set the poems themes and images. How do you choose the title of your poems? What is your process?
I use titles that I hope lure the reader into wondering why the speaker is taking stock of a particular situation at a particular moment. “Listening to Schumann’s Piano Concerto,” “If I Can Feel the World Tonight,” “I Wasn’t Aware,” and “The Way Water Falls” are examples of those. “If I Can Feel the World Tonight” and “I Wasn’t Aware” are also examples of “bridging titles” that serve as the first lines of poems. Because there’s less psychological distance (which a title can impose), you’re able to create a greater sense of immediacy or intimacy; the sense that the speaker is right there talking directly to the reader.
I also like using simple, often single, words that name natural or man-made things. Charles Simic was an influence in that regard. For example, I’m thinking of his titles (just to name a few) “The Bird,” “Brooms,” and “The Wedding” from his early collection, Return to a Place Lit by a Glass of Milk. Regardless of the process, for me, picking the title is always the final task.
Many of your poems in Convertible Night, Flurry of Stones employ different visual structures on the page. How do you make decisions about the visual elements of a poem?
I structure my poems depending on how I feel their emotional, imagistic units. I use couplets when I want the reader to slow down and absorb the information in smaller bits. With these poems, although I may feel surer of the essential details, the surprise, ultimately, is the constellation that is named after the internal relationship between those details is revealed.
With single-stanza poems, I may invite the reader’s involvement in the process of exposing vulnerabilities as well as discovery. In “Nude Descending,” for example, I want the reader to make the “descent”—ultimately toward transcendence —with me. No breaks. No rest stops.
The decision to use quatrains in the long poem titled “Cheap” allowed me to amplify dramatic tension by imposing visual order on a narrative that was based on family chaos.
Half-a-dozen poems in the collection are written as sequential poems. I love this form because it takes into consideration different thoughts/meditations on a theme that reveals the poem’s living character through tonal shifts. Currently, I’m working a lot with sequential prose poems. We’ll see where that goes!